William Woys Weaver: Trading Bees for Seeds

June 22, 2012 at 2:00 am 3 comments

If you’ve been following our twitter and facebook page, you’ve been learning about our newly planted vegetable garden at the southwest corner of the National Museum of American History. The Gillette Family Garden is an important adjunct to the current exhibit, “Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” http://www.monticello.org/slavery-at-monticello/about/breaking-ground-gillette-family-garden

Fish Peppers

Fish Peppers

Out of all the vegetables in the garden, the fish pepper is likely to have the most interesting history. Fish peppers are dated to the early nineteenth century, where they were popularly grown as an heirloom vegetable by African Americans in Philadelphia and Baltimore. The green, inconspicuous fish pepper was often the secret ingredient in fish and shellfish cookery, passed down in recipes communicated through oral history.

The story of these peppers’ mid-twentieth century rediscovery may be traced to an important barter made by men trading bees for seeds.  In the 1940s, Horace Pippin of West Chester, Pennsylvania, sought a unique remedy for his war wounds. Learning that bee stings may relieve the pain of his wounds, Pippin bought bees from H. Ralph Weaver.

NMAH Garden's Wattle Fence

NMAH Garden’s Wattle Fence

In exchange, Pippin offered what he had – tons of interesting vegetable seeds, including the rare fish pepper, for what would become the Roughwood Seed Collection, run by Weaver’s grandson, William Woys Weaver. For the first time, the fish pepper was advertised to the public on a grand scale when William Woys Weaver offered the seeds in the 1995 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook.

The garden will be on view during the length of the new exhibit, ending October 14, 2012. For more info on the exhibit, see http://ow.ly/bQgBF

To purchase your own fish peppers, go to http://ow.ly/bs0Yc

Kristina Borrman, Katzenberger Art History Intern

Entry filed under: Garden History, Horticulture. Tags: , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. The Fish Pepper | Smithsonian Gardens  |  September 10, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    […] William Woys Weaver: Trading Bees for Seeds […]

  • 2. Stephanie Wurtzel (@StephWurtzel)  |  July 11, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Does Smithsonian Gardens eat what their garden produces? Is there anyway to try fish peppers at the Smithsonian cafes?

    • 3. smithsoniangardens  |  July 12, 2012 at 7:57 am

      We do informally share seasonal produce from the Victory Garden with the chef at the National Museum of American History cafe. Also, produce from the National Museum of the American Indian is shared with the museum’s cafe. While the volume is not large enough to warrant a menu line, the staff will add the produce to special dishes that week.

      The fish peppers are growing at the Gillette Family Garden on the southwest corner of the National Museum of American History. Some of the Gillette Family Garden produce was used to illustrate Leni Sorensen’s food demonstration at the USDA Farmer’s Market a few weeks ago. While I don’t have a specific fish pepper menu item for you from our cafe, I would recommend that you target local seafood restaurants in your search for fish pepper dishes! Good luck 🙂


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